The Bears agreed to pay Jay Cutler $54 million in guaranteed money not because of what he did in 2013, when he missed five games and was outperformed by his backup.
They made him the highest-paid player in the history of the team not because of what he did in his previous four years, when he threw more interceptions than all but four players in the league.
They gave him that money because of what they think he is going to do now. And what Cutler is going to do now may be something he has never done before.
If Cutler stays healthy, there is reason to believe he will have his best season. "I think he's poised for a big year," said his former backup Josh McCown, who has kept in close contact with Cutler after signing with the Bucs. "Jay is at a good point in his career. It's an example of timing and getting in the right situation with the right people. Two years in the same system is really helpful for a quarterback."
This will be only the second time in the last six years Cutler has been in the same system for consecutive seasons. Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said Cutler has grown in the offense through his study. He said the difference between Cutler in the offense last year and this year is like the difference between a 101-level course and a 201-level course.
It's more than just continuity. It's continuity with a system that fits him well and with a coaching staff he connects with. Bears head coach Marc Trestman this week said he noticed Cutler has continued to improve his fundamentals through his work with quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh. Cutler appears to click with Trestman better than any coach in his career other than perhaps Mike Shanahan, his first head coach.
And Cutler is being counted on to lead like he never previously has been. When Trestman took a trip to New York recently to visit with thought leader Dov Seidman about team-building ideas, he brought Cutler with him. "I wanted another set of ears," Trestman said. "And I thought Jay could help me bring the ideas back and spread them to the locker room."
Exceptional leadership has never been one of Cutler’s strengths. But this is a different phase of his career. He is 31 years old now—at a point where heightened understanding and peak ability are most likely to intersect.
And he is surrounded with skill position players so talented that they were able to help McCown achieve a passer rating in 2013 that was 37.8 points higher than his previous career passer rating.
Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery form perhaps the best wide receiver duo in the NFL, and they are augmented by one of the league's better all-around running backs in Matt Forte and a fine two-way tight end in Martellus Bennett. The Bears have weapons to attack a defense in many ways, which makes it more difficult for opponents to predict what Cutler will do.
Cutler is also playing behind the best offensive line he has played behind in Chicago. He was sacked 19 times last year after being sacked an average of 37 times in his previous four years.
Whether or not Cutler can achieve what he is expected to achieve could come down to his health. He has not played a full 16-game schedule since 2009, and it is fair to question his durability. Cutler believes he can avoid injuries if he can avoid excessive hits.
He should be able to do that, in part because of his blockers, in part because of receivers who can get open and make contested catches, and in part because Trestman and Cavanaugh have him getting rid of the ball quickly.
See, when Cutler came to Chicago, the Bears expected him to lift the team. Now, the team can lift him. And ultimately, Cutler and the team can lift each other.
• Ladarius Green showed some flashes in San Diego minicamp this week, and the plan is for the Chargers to involve the third-year tight end in the offense more this season. That means more personnel groups that include Green and more opportunities for him to make big plays. The coaching staff believes Green has the size, speed, reach and athleticism to be an impact player, especially if he gets the right matchups.
• The Chiefs have ambitious plans for fourth-round pick De'Anthony Thomas, but Thomas has missed some time. He was absent for 10 OTA practices because school still was in session at Oregon. At minicamp this week, Thomas missed a little more time when the heat got to him. But if Thomas can play catch-up, he can be a significant factor this season.
The Chiefs see him as a potential replacement for Dexter McCluster. Though Thomas does not have McCluster's initial quickness, the feeling in K.C. is he appears to have better long speed and more consistency between the tackles, as well as superior return ability.
• Jake Matthews will be starting his career at right tackle for the Falcons, but it's just a matter of time before the first-round pick switches to the left side. The thinking in Flowery Branch is Matthews can be eased in at right tackle before taking on the more demanding left tackle job—and Sam Baker has played well at left tackle when healthy. The Falcons do not want to displace Baker unless he gets injured or does not perform well.
• Most running backs saw their stock drop in the draft as a result of the devaluation of the position, but scouts say there were other reasons behind the stock drop of Storm Johnson. The Jaguars chose him in the seventh round, but multiple scouts said Johnson has ability that merited a spot as high as the early third round.
Johnson, however, didn't do himself many favors in the predraft process. One scout said Johnson missed flights to visit teams, was late to meetings and had an attitude. "He turned a lot of people off," he said. That also helps explain why he transferred to Central Florida from Miami.
The other concerning aspect with Johnson is ball security. He had eight fumbles in two seasons and carried the ball exclusively in his right hand. Many teams are less tolerant of giveaways than ever before.
After going through minicamp this week, some teams are likely to be examining their lists of best available free agents. And if they were disappointed with their own players, they also are likely to be disappointed with the players on the street. Here are thoughts from three front office men on some of the best available free agents. Players are ranked in order of desirability. Those with serious medical questions, such as former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, were not considered.
1. Brandon Flowers, CB
One front office man compared the former Chief to Alterraun Verner, who signed a four-year contract with the Bucs in the offseason worth nearly $26 million with $14 million guaranteed. Flowers clearly is the best player on the market at any position. Working in Flowers' favor is the absence of viable corners on the market. Working against Flowers is his performance in 2013, according to a second front office man.
"Before last year, he was a solid starter with good ball skills and some man ability," he said. "But he struggled last year. His lack of speed showed up more than you like. He might be declining." He said at this stage of Flowers' career, the 28-year-old is probably best as a nickel corner covering the slot, but Flowers apparently balked at that assignment in Kansas City.
2. Richie Incognito, G
All three front office men agreed Incognito has the ability to be a quality starting offensive lineman. "Best interior guy out there easily," one said. Another said, "He can anchor in pass pro and move people in the run game." No one wants to deal with him after his bullying issues in Miami, though. "It's hard enough to win without that," one personnel man said.
3. Jason Babin, DE
One of the front office men said Babin, who the Jaguars released this week, still can get to the quarterback. But he also called him a "one-dimensional pass-rusher." Babin is 34 years old and might not be as durable as he once was.
4. Santonio Holmes, WR
The personnel men were in agreement that the 30-year-old still has intriguing skill, though one said his speed looked a little off. There are concerns with Holmes after the Jets cut him. One is his ability to stay healthy, which may have affected his speed. He missed 17 games over the last two years with foot and hamstring injuries.
Another concern is his locker room presence. "We'd have to look more closely at what happened in New York with him in the locker room," one front office man said. Another issue is affordability. Holmes undoubtedly will need to accept a deal that pays less than he wants.
5. Eric Winston, OT
One front office man explained Winston not being picked up yet this way: "He's been a zone tackle who relies on athleticism over physicality, so he has to go to the right scheme." Another said Winston is a right tackle only, and if he's a backup he will need to play more than one position.
Winston's asking price also apparently has been an issue, according to one of the front office men. Still, he is only 30 years old and has been a decent starter for the past seven years for the Texans, Chiefs and Cardinals. It should not be long before he finds work.
6. Ryan Pickett, DT
At 34, the former Packer does not have much mobility and has declined in the opinion of one evaluator. But he also said, "He is a space-eater who can still hold the point and has been durable. He will get signed."
7. Josh Freeman, QB
He now has been let go by three teams in less than a year, which does not bode well for Freeman. But his talent remains intriguing. The problem might be finding a good fit. "He is probably better as a starter, but he isn't going to get a starting job now," one front office man said. "And if he knows he's a backup, he might not prepare like he's a starter."
8. Kyle Cook, C
One front office man said the former Bengal is "tough and smart, but he might be losing his legs a little." Another said he thought Cook will get picked up because he can provide depth at guard as well as center, and there aren't many players with experience who can do that.
9. Tyson Clabo, OT
This longtime starter probably has seen better days at 32, but he still has value. "He struggled some last year," one front office man said of Clabo's performance with the Dolphins. "But he is tough and resilient and can help you as a stopgap player."
10. Michael Bush, RB
One front office man said Bush is a "credible NFL running back who can catch," but said he did not have a very good season for the Bears in 2013. He also said the devaluation of the running back position works against veterans like Bush, as teams are more likely to go with rookies who can play special teams. "People think they can find a running back anywhere," he said.
• Johnny Manziel says he can't hear through all his cash. Now he has an excuse not to follow Kyle Shanahan's directions.
• When Vince Young proclaimed he was retiring, it was well after 32 NFL teams had come to the same conclusion.
• The Jets playbook has been so well circulated that some suspect it will debut on the New York Times best seller list this week.
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